David Burke

From The Arthur Conan Doyle Encyclopedia
David Burke as Watson in The Resident Patient (1985)

David Burke (born 25 may 1934) is a British actor who played Dr. Watson in 1984-1985 (season 1 & 2) in the TV series Sherlock Holmes with Jeremy Brett as Sherlock Holmes, He was replaced by Edward Hardwicke for the rest of the series. He also played Sir George Burnwell in 1965 in the TV episode The Beryl Coronet with Douglas Wilmer as Sherlock Holmes.


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An unexpected personal journey

David Burke & Anna Calder-Marshall (1971)

The first Doctor Watson of the Granada series, David Burke was born on 25 may 1934 in Liverpool into a modest and deeply Catholic family. His older sister has in fact taken over the orders. As for his mother, she was horrified when he proclaimed his willingness to integrate himself into the world of perdition that is the theatre. But the young man's decision proved to be as definitive as it was fortuitous: while he was a student at Oxford, he was given a small role in a university performance. The few lines he pronounced unleashed a storm of laughter. From that moment on, he later remebered, "he knew what he was going to do with his life" (The Television Sherlock Holmes, Peter Haining, 1986). In 1971, Burke married the actress Anna Calder Marshall who, the previous year, had been a touching Catherine Earnshaw-Linton in Wuthering Heights alongside Timothy Dalton (Heathcliffe). In 1993, she skillfully played the difficult role of the two sisters Northcote in The Eligible Bachelor, the last TV movie of the series Sherlock Holmes. David and Anna, who have performed together many times, as in 2011 in Arthur Miller's play Danger: Memory', live in Kent with their son Tom (born in 1981), who has also embraced the acting career. He was chosen for the role of Athos in the BBC One series The Musketeers (2014) where his father (Father Duval) also appears. Thus, coming from a milieu with traditional religious values for which the theatre was the devil's kingdom, Burke founded a dynasty of actors.

A rich and varied theatrical repertoire

David Burke as Stan Mann (Roots, 2013)

Graduate of the prestigious Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, David Burke's first passion is theatre. Classically trained, like Jeremy Brett, he has worked for the National Theatre, the Royal Lyceum Company and the Royal Shakespeare Company. He played Othello in the title role, played Hector in Troilus and Cressida (1985), Kent in King Lear (1997) and John of Gaunt in Richard II alongside Ralph Fiennes (2000). He has also recorded audio versions of Shakespeare's Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece and much more modern works such as Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett. Because Burke is far from having confined himself to the great classics of English theatre. Among other things, he played the role of physicist Niels Bohr in Michael Frayn's Copenhagen in 2008 and, as an unrepentant joker, led the playwright to believe in the existence of secret documents revealing the real reasons why the atomic scientist Heisenberg had gone to Copenhagen. From this wonderful hoax, Frayn and Burke drew a book, Celia's Secret: The Copenhagen Papers. It is not the only publication of the actor, who also has to his credit Street Talk 1, How to Speak and Understand American Slang. In the fall of 2013, Burke played Stan Mann, the abandoned, fallen and alcoholic businessman from Roots (1959), a play written by Arnold Wesker at a time when salon comedies were giving way to raw, sometimes sordid realism, known as kitchen sink dramas.

Television as an invaluable support and springboard

David Burke as Camillo (The Winter's Tale, 1981)

Yet, like Jeremy Brett, David Burke's fame is essentially not due to the theatre, which only reaches a limited audience, nor to cinema. He certainly played for example in 2004 in the movie Straight Jacket (as Ray) or in 2012 in La Dame en noir (as a Police Constable Collins) and in A Thousand Words (as Gil Reed), but it was his many and diverse roles on the small screen that constituted the most constant and solid support of his career and considerably broadened his audience and reputation. Among the many characters he has played are Private Terence Mulvaney in The Indian Tales of Rudyard Kipling (1964), John Benjamin in Coronation Street (1966), Dr. Benedict in The Guardians (1971), Tom Prentiss in Holly (1972), Tom Amyas in Armchair Thriller, Quiet as a Nun (1978), Camillo in The Winter's Tale (1981), Sir William Catesby in The Tragedy of Richard III (1983). He was also Sir Arthur Stanley in Hercules Poirot, Pension Vanilos (1995), and in 2002 Lord Reith in Bertie and Elizabeth. Few are the types of roles he hasn't played! In 1983, he masterfully portrayed a considerable historical figure, Joseph Stalin, in Reilly, Ace of Spies; in 2004, in Sheridan's hilarious comedy The Rivals, the burlesque Sir Anthony Absolute and in 2006 Professor Harshom in a science fiction film, Random Quest, assuming the existence of parallel worlds. He was even God's voice inThe Bible in Animation, Creation and the Flood (1996) but did not disdain to come down in 2008 to shoot hilarious commercials where he plays the founder of a Dutch confectionery firm, Johannes Conradus Klene.

David Burke and Dr. Watson

David Burke as Sir George Burnwell (The Beryl Coronet, 1965)

In 1965, David Burke had already met Sherlock Holmes. He had played in The Beryl Coronet the seductive and cynical Sir George Burnwell with Douglas Wilmer as Sherlock Holmes and Nigel Stock as Watson.

Michael Cox had worked with David Burke in 1972 on the Holly series. The scriptwriter was Robin Chapman who will adapt, in 1991 The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes. When it came to choosing a Watson for the Sherlock Holmes series, the producer didn't hesitate: he knew Burke could bring maximum warmth and wit to the interpretation of the good Doctor. The problem was whether the actor would accept the supporting role in the series. Fortunately, this was the case. Burke admits that he first had some doubts: "How to play the role of a man who is perhaps the most ordinary character in English literature?" But his wife swept away his hesitations, he adds with humour, saying: "Watson is your perfect portrait!" Moreover, as Burke himself explains with great frankness and realism, unemployment was increasing among the actors and two years of work ensured in a quality production was by no means to be disdained.

David Burke as Watson in The Copper Beeches (1985)

Michael Cox was therefore able to have an interpreter capable of breaking the mould which, with a few exceptions, such as [[André Morell], had been producing inept and laughable Watsons for many years. Indeed, Watson, whose role in Arthur Conan Doyle's work is essentially a narrator, has little to do and even less to say (Burke, who counted how many words he pronounced in The Speckled Band, arrived at a total of 43! Nigel Bruce, the Watson of Basil Rathbone, eager to give importance to his character, had the clever idea of making him a clown that the audience would love. He succeeded brilliantly, but Watson dedicated himself to the role of burlesque colleague for ages. Michael Cox had a very different view of the doctor. If, in his eyes, he was certainly not a genius like Sherlock Holmes, he was nevertheless an intelligent, brave, efficient, loyal and devoted man. In short, a worthy companion for the great detective, who would certainly not have supported a fool at his side. David Burke had all the assets to succeed in embodying the vigorous, energetic, curious, alert, responsive, funny, caring and, to say the least, eminently seductive and sympathetic Watson that Cox dreamed of. During the filming of the thirteen episodes of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, he got along well with Jeremy Brett. They had in common a classical education, a keen sense of humour, a lot of fantasy and an immoderate taste for farce and hoax. Both remarkably inventive, they added delicious details of their own to the scenarios. But they also passionately wanted to be loyal to [[Arthur Conan Doyle], even if it sometimes meant fighting with the producer, who was certainly a fervent and devoted admirer of Sherlock Holmes' author, but also a manager, forced to make concessions or face bankruptcy.

David Burke as Watson in The Dancing Men (1984)

David Burke liked the show. However, when Michael Cox wanted to hire him for The Return of Sherlock Holmes, he refused to sign a new contract. This was a major blow for the team and especially for Cox and Brett. Burke had hesitated for a long time. But in the end, it seemed unthinkable to him to continue shooting in Manchester while his wife would remain alone in Kent to take care of their three-year-old son Tom. It was indeed a heavy burden for the young woman, who had health problems and whom the child's custody had practically forced to stop playing. However, the famous Royal Shakespeare Company, based in Stratford, proposed to engage the couple. Burke accepted this tempting offer all the more willingly as we were not yet absolutely certain, at that time, that The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes would have a follow-up. Would it have been if his decision had probably not been different because, as he said later in an interview, the family was considered to be his first priority. Moreover, despite his perfect understanding with Brett and the pleasure he found in shooting the series, David Burke was not totally satisfied with his role. It was confessed to Michael Cox in a letter quoted in the book A Study in Celluloid. Despite the scriptwriters' efforts to give Watson a more active role and put him forward, the actor claims to suffer from not having more to say and do. He says he has exhausted all possible means to convey the good Doctor's amazement and admiration for the intellectual exploits of his resident genius and expresses his fear of eventually annoying the audience despite his efforts to be funny while remaining credible. So he humorously asks Michael Cox if he could not, for example, juggle him or get into the lion's cage. Time seems to have hardly changed his perception of his role because, in an interview dating back to 2000, he still says he felt, at the end of the shooting of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, infinitely tired of repeating on every conceivable tone: Good Heavens, Holmes!.

But the spectators, on the other hand, are generally far from finding David Burke passive, erased or boring in the role of the good Doctor. First, because in their eyes, Holmes and Watson are an inseparable couple. It is their association that makes the success of the stories. Totally different, the two characters match each other and get along all the better. And if it is Holmes whom we admire, it is with Watson that we immediately sympathize and it is with him that we identify. As for Burke, while his text is small, his particularly expressive attitudes and face speak, and with great eloquence, comedy and charm. His lines don't have to be long to be powerful. Consider, for example, the tremendous charge of controlled indignation and anger he put in the simple this is Sherlock Holmes addressed to the police officers who had allowed themselves not to react to Holmes' entry into The Dancing Men.

David Burke as Watson (Biography: Sherlock Holmes: The Great Detective, 1995)

Far from leaving the series by abandoning an orphaned team behind him, David Burke took care to ensure his successor. He introduced Michael Cox to a perfect successor, Edward Hardwicke, whom he knew very well from playing with him. But Burke had not finished with Sherlock Holmes as he appeared in 1995 in the TV Documentary Biography: Sherlock Holmes: The Great Detective as Dr. Watson; and in 2007, he presented a chapter of the excellent Elementary My Dear Viewer: The Shackles of Sherlock Holmes show. And such is the popularity of the tenants of 221B, Baker Street, and their power to make their performers famous, that all the notices concerning David Burke stipulate: "Mainly known for the role of Dr. Watson alongside Jeremy Brett in the Granada series". We can't escape Sherlock Holmes' chains.

  • Credits : Monique Claisse (text), Sarah Fava (photos), Granada.
  • Sources : Dyan Bretty's Forum Jeremy Brett; Michael Cox's A Study in Celluloïd; Peter Haining's The Television Sherlock Holmes.